Blue Notes by Robin Lynam

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 10:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 10:02am

Free improvisation breaks a lot of musical rules, but when played by gifted musicians who have learned those rules before disregarding some, free jazz is often more coherent than at first appears.

Finding that coherence may mean listening to the music over and over, but it can be worthwhile, as is the case with a new release on Pi Recordings, Live at the Village Vanguard, by the Marc Ribot Trio, featuring bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Chad Taylor.

I like the element of the unexpected that Ribot's off-the-wall playing introduces to the music of songwriters such as Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, and because the recordings document - surprisingly - the guitarist's first residency at New York's Village Vanguard, in 2012. Ribot's playing is far from mainstream, but he has recorded with pianist McCoy Tyner, composer-saxophonist John Zorn and pianist-singer Diana Krall, among many others.

Giving the album a particular sense of occasion is the fact that it marks Grimes' return to the Vanguard after an interval of 48 years - for many of which he was widely assumed to be dead.

Grimes, 78, has made one of the most remarkable comebacks in jazz. Born in Philadelphia, he emerged in the 1950s as an accomplished and versatile bassist, working with composers such as Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan and, in a twin bass line-up, Charles Mingus.

Grimes was drawn to free jazz, and in the early 1960s was one of the sidemen of choice for the leading lights of the sound including Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor.

On December 18, 1966, Grimes performed with saxophonist Ayler at the Vanguard; the show was recorded and issued the next year as Albert Ayler in Greenwich Village - a landmark free jazz recording instigated by John Coltrane, who was in the audience.

Not long afterwards, Grimes moved to Los Angeles and stopped playing, choosing poetry as an alternative creative outlet. But there was even less of a living in that line of work, so he kept himself alive doing whatever menial jobs he could find. He also sold his bass.

It was widely assumed he had died, but in 2002 a fan, Marshall Marrotte, tracked him down in Los Angeles. Grimes was ready to play again but he had no instrument. William Parker, a free jazz bassist and fellow poet, gave him one of his instruments, and, after a 35-year break, Grimes was back.

He has since recorded several albums as a leader (and published his poetry). Among other sideman gigs, he has resumed his association with Cecil Taylor, and in 2004 established a new one with Ribot, playing Ayler's music once again.

"Henry plays in the past, present and future simultaneously," says fellow Ribot Trio member Chad Taylor. "There is something very spiritual about his playing that is hard to articulate. He has very big ears. He hears everything."

Of the six tracks on the CD (a nine-track version is available from iTunes), two are by Ayler, The Wizard and Bells; and two by Coltrane, Dearly Beloved and Sun Ship.

The most adventurous free improvisation is to be heard on those, but Old Man River and I'm Confessin' (That I Love You) are played relatively straight.

The trio's performances, according to Taylor, are "a process, a ritual that dictates the form and flow of the music. It's a sequence of events that are related to one another not by their changes, form or key, but by the feelings, forces and energy that they share."

Meanwhile, the gigs of the week are the final night of the Hong Kong Summer Jazz Festival tomorrow at City Hall, featuring the Hong Kong University Big Band, Jazbalaya and Allen Youngblood, Eugene Pao and the Saturday Night Jazz Orchestra.

On Saturday at Peel Fresco, the Guy Le Claire Trio will promote their albums Trio 2, Solo 3 and Rock Hitz.

Take Three

Grimes is strongly associated with free jazz, but also played a pivotal role in classic jazz albums which relied more on his sense of swing. Here are three of them.

  • Reunion With Chet Baker (1957, Pacific Jazz): Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker revive their early 1950s piano-less quartet format, with Grimes and drummer Dave Bailey.


  • Sonny Rollins and The Big Brass (1958, MetroJazz): the big brass section arrangements are the point of the album, but three of the high points of CD reissues on MetroJazz and Verve are trio tracks recorded with just Rollins, Grimes and drummer Specs Wright.


  • Out of the Afternoon (1962, Impulse!): drummer Roy Haynes is the leader on this fine small-group set, which also features pianist Tommy Flanagan and Roland Kirk on saxes.